When I was 13 or 14, in the very early 1970s, a new phrase came into our language: we’re into Europe.
How are things? you’d ask, and the reply would be Ah sure, we’re into Europe.
Or, Isn’t it a grand day?, someone would say, and you’d answer “Oh, it is, sure we’re into Europe.”
For a year or two either side of Ireland’s entry into what was then the European Economic Community in 1973, the phrase lingered in our speech. It was a substitute for the usual expressions of contentment: grand, fine, terrific, couldn’t be better, doin’ mighty. Like so many Irish phrases, it was half ironic, half serious, tossed out with a rueful grin but containing some kind of truth. For the notion of going into Europe as an optimistic journey did mean something back then.
It’s easy now, in Ireland’s rather woeful state, to be cynical about what that something was and to say that it was money, plain and simple. Ireland was a relatively poor country back then, a heavily agricultural economy with a standard of living just two thirds of the western European average. It was farmers in particular who were full of enthusiasm about the European project. A highly conservative, Catholic country, where nationalism was still a powerful emotional force, might have been expected to be more resistant to the idea of a shiny, new European modernity, in which national sovereignty would be limited and a more pluralist identity would become the norm. But while left-wing radicals and urban workers tended to be suspicious of Europe, the farmers and middle classes couldn’t get into it fast enough. They saw a road to Brussels paved with gold.
And well they might. Nearly €50 billion has flowed towards Irish farms through the Common Agricultural Policy, and in the first three decades of Ireland’s membership there was another €17 billion from the structural funds for roads and bridges and sewage works.
The image I remember most vividly from those early years of being “in Europe” was the new white bungalows with flat roofs and big picture windows that seemed to spring up overnight in the fields of rural Ireland like mushrooms in a misty autumn. Sometimes, the thatched cottage that was being replaced wasn’t even demolished. It still stood behind the new bungalow, looking dark and low and mean and dank, an embodiment of the past we were escaping. An architect published a book of do-it-yourself plans for new houses that sold like shamrock on Saint Patrick’s Day. He called it Bungalow Bliss, and that, for a while, was the state in which the new European Ireland seemed to live.
The money mattered a lot. Without it, enthusiasm for the European project would have been a fad for a few right-thinking intellectuals. The evolving European Union was the context in which Irish standards of living caught up with European norms. It wasn’t just the cash that turned winding, two-lane roads into smooth, straight motorways, or the artificially inflated prices that let farmers buy spanking new milking parlours and tractors and combine harvesters. Being in the EU made Ireland an attractive destination for American investment. The annual amount of foreign direct investment in Ireland in 1972, the year before the country went into Europe was the equivalent of €16 million euro. Thirty five years later, it was €30 billion. Who wouldn’t love Europe when it was such an obvious route to riches?
But there’s no need to be entirely cynical. Europe did have some meaning beyond the merely mercenary. A few old nationalists saw Ireland selling its soul for Brussels gold but actually there turned out not to be a simple trade-off between national sovereignty and European prosperity. While a large, post-imperial country like Britain agonised over the extent to which it had to pool its sovereignty, Ireland pointed the way forward for many of the smaller or more fragile European nations that subsequently joined the EU. For us, and for them, having a seat at the table in Brussels became, not a watering-down of your nationhood, but a vindication of it. This, increasingly, was what it meant to be an independent nation in the post Cold War Europe of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: you proved you were sovereign by sharing some of that sovereignty.
This may sound like a nonsensical paradox in a country like Britain that’s used to asserting itself, but it makes a lot of sense in one that’s emergent and uncertain. For Poland or Latvia or the Czech republic, Europe, both as a set of institutions and as an idea, was the safe haven in which you could be free at last from Russian domination. But Ireland had already experienced this. Our big neighbour, of course, wasn’t Russia. It was Britain. Being European was the ultimate way of not being British.
Irish writers and artists had realised this long before the politicians and business people caught up with them. For James Joyce and John Millington Synge, for William Butler Yeats and Samuel Beckett, there was no point in writing an inward-looking Irish literature but there was also no attraction in being just a quaint provincial branch of English lit. The great escape from this dilemma lay in the idea of being European. As an idea, perhaps its great attraction lay in its very vagueness. It implied an openness, a complexity, some relationship to the traditions of classic civilisation and of the Renaissance, of free thinking, of hopes and horrors played out on an epic scale. It smelt of some kind of freedom. But beyond that, it was too undefined to be oppressive. You could make of it what you wished.
Something of this spirit infused the Ireland of my twenties and thirties. It was Europe that forced the Irish government to introduce legislation on equal pay for women. It was European courts that gave poor people the right to legal aid so they could fight cases to defend their rights. It was European courts that struck down the vicious Irish laws that made it a crime for homosexual men to have sex – the same laws under which Oscar Wilde was prosecuted and which remained on the books in Ireland until they were struck down in 1988 by the European Court of Human Rights. In these ways, being European wasn’t about disappearing into an amorphous mass. It was actually the opposite – a way of respecting and protecting the individual or the minority group against the overweening power of a national majority. People rightly get nervous when others talk of ‘European civilisation’ but this stuff was actually very civilised, and if you were a woman, or a gay man or otherwise an outsider in Catholic Ireland, you could genuinely feel that there was something called ‘Europe’ that was likely to be on your side.
And for a small nation like Ireland, which had been outside of the defining European event of the Second World War, going ‘into Europe’ was also an education. It took us time to fully grasp how resonant and even miraculous the close alliance of Germany and France in the EU really was. The achievement of that peace was wrapped in such high-flown sententiousness that it required some effort to understand that it is, after all, one of the great historic responses to the command that emerged from the years of carnage: ‘Never again’. And if you were Irish, that example did slowly work its way into how we thought about our own obscene little conflict. The EU didn’t solve the Northern Ireland conflict, but it did make it seem increasingly absurd and outrageous. It took a special kind of zealotry to remain obsessed with the border within the island of Ireland when all the European borders were becoming more porous.
Even when you take away the money, therefore, there’s something left of Europe. And, for Ireland, the money tap was gradually turned off. In the 1990s, as the country boomed and standards of living reached western European norms, Ireland was no longer the sweet little street urchin that Europe liked to favour with handouts and words of encouragement. The EU expanded eastwards and there were much larger claims on Brussels benevolence than the increasingly prosperous and apparently settled little island on the western fringe.
But there was something left and without the mercenary considerations, it was something rather purer. There was that vague but powerful notion of Europe as a shared and open space, able to accommodate the local and distinctive in its glorious cacophony of cultures and languages, yet sufficiently sobered by its experiences of extreme nationalism to understand identities as open, many-layered and fluid. There was that idea that large institutions didn’t have to be oppressive but could, in fact, be used to protect those who were weak or different or despised. There was that imaginative space invented by artists, full of collisions and possibilities, where you could decide to find yourself or to get lost. And there was the hope that, at some point, Europe might become strong and coherent and democratic enough to be able finally to assert the public interest against the more rapacious forces of global capitalism.
But there was also a deep contradiction in Europe itself. At heart, the European Union was a post-war project. As such, it was imagined as more than just a way to stop Germany invading France again. It aimed to create a form of economy in which social breakdown and totalitarianism could not happen. The bulwarks were the social market and the welfare state. Regulation of markets, movement towards greater equality and a basic level of decency for all citizens were, in day-to-day terms, what Europe really meant.
But those beliefs were gradually eroded and challenged from the 1980s, leaving Europe increasingly uncertain of what its own high-toned values really meant in practice. The irony was that Ireland, which had benefited so much from old-fashioned European social solidarity when it was poor, came to embody this challenge when it was rich. Boomtime Ireland looked like living proof that the old European model was long past its sell-by date. Low taxes, light regulation, the so-called free-market, and buccaneering individualism seemed to have created the Irish economic miracle. And so, the question arose – were we really Europeans after all? A senior government politician, Mary Harney, actually suggested at the height of the boom that Ireland was spiritually closer to Boston than to Berlin. Our island seemed to be drifting slowly out into the Atlantic.
And then, of course, being American turned out not to be such a great idea after all. Rugged individualism, we learned, was actually cowboy capitalism. The house of cards collapsed and we turned again to look for that old European social solidarity, that notion of common purpose and common interest, that idea that we could rely on friends in our distress. And it was gone. We had done our bit to kill it off by flaunting ourselves as the great example of why Europe had to become more American. But we were in no mood to appreciate the neat ironies and the poetic justice.
The message from Europe when the crisis hit in 2008 was clear and brutal: the sole duty of Irish citizens is to pay back the staggering sums that private Irish banks borrowed from banks in Germany, France and Britain. The consequences for Ireland’s society and economy of what will be the most expensive bank bailout in world history, are irrelevant. The harshness of this response has taken the shine off the European ideal for most Irish people. Where once Europe made the Irish feel that they had some power, now it leaves them with a deep sense of powerlessness. There is still strong support for the idea of Europe but it is tainted by present anger and anxiety for the future. If Europe was the form in which Ireland adopted globalisation, no one can be sure what old feelings might resurface if globalisation is rolled back.
And so, it started with money and it ends with money. In the beginning, there was an Ireland that saw Europe in the shape of a pile of cash to be sent westwards. In the end, there is a Europe that sees Ireland in the shape of an even bigger pile of cash to be sent back east. And in the middle, there was something larger and braver, something generous and hopeful and civilised. It is being squeezed ever more tightly now and it is not at all obvious that Europe has the collective will to save it. But if it is finally crushed, humanity will be the poorer for it.
This was first given as a talk in the ‘Reflecting on the state of Europe’ series on BBC Radio 4, on October 27, 2011